When is a Network NOT Your Network? Think Social.

When is a network NOT your network? If you're an typical person working for a typical company, it's when you're talking about SOCIAL NETWORKS.

However, this isn't always as bad as it sounds.

I've spent time over the past several months trying out various social networks to understand how people at a typical enterprise might use them -- other than to get a job outside that enterprise!

My interest was originally to understand how we could do a better job supporting more dynamic networks of employees, partners, and suppliers in meaningful online situations.

After all, many of these users are all represented in your enterprise's existing networks in directories, databases, and applications. If I look for a document in my content management system, doesn't it make sense that a result might come back first as much because of who wrote that document and their relationship to me (reporting, project groups, departments, tags, etc...) as much as because of the proximity of my search terms?

That said, this posting is less about enterprise social networking than it is about the existing social networks that everyone knows about and how they fit for an enterprise user:

I could see a lot of situations where using technology such as virtual directory to link enterprise directory users with their connections on a service like this might be useful...except that the actual relationships here are ill-defined. I might have added some people that I work with all the time and other people that I haven't talked to in ten years. I may have also added people that I talked to once at last week's conference that I'll never talk to again.

As those of us in the identity and directory spaces have known for a while, figuring out how identities really fit together with all the various other identities (e.g. taking ad-hoc groups of users with the same privileges and lumping them into a role) is a lot harder to do than it sounds.

If there was more context around these relationships, linking to it would be the easy way to give your sales people a roadmap to reaching the person they want at a particular account through someone they already know. Or lets you know which partner might be the best to go into an opportunity with based on their existing successful relationships with a customer.

Clearly there's a lot more here, but given that I'm not actually linked via LinkedIn to most of the people I'm REALLY related to (colleagues, managers, staff, etc...), the network being shown is far from complete.

If I wasn't linked to anyone I deal with on a regular basis on LinkedIn, this is even more the case with Facebook. One again, while I have a network, it's missing major people.

Even more troubling to adoption in corporate environments, though, is the application platform. There is one, but most of what has been built on it isn't very meaningful and it's hard to find the stuff that might be good or become good with enough support.

Since some of the emphasis here is on content sharing (photos, blogs, comments, etc...), many enterprise users are going to be cautious about inviting their colleagues, managers, or subordinates to their network out of concern that sharing their photos from Tahoe might not be interesting to that class of people in their network.

As a source of data and enterprise network information, I have a hard time seeing where a typical enterprise might want to hook up, even with well documented APIs.

Once again, the key problem here is that the "network" lacks important context and even if manual context is created, it can get old fast. After all, nobody's paycheck is linked to their Facebook profile being up-to-date.

Certainly at a hit rate of 1/150, it's a network...but a very, very small subset of my real network.

What's different here is that Twitter is less about recreating your own existing real-world networks on the Internet than it is about getting you to communicate with NEW people about NEW things.

It's funny that I wrote the above, as I signed up for Twitter 6 months ago, only to regard it as the medium for "I'm in a boring meeting" announcements, or any other statement that was too boring to write in email, blogs, instant messages, or so forth... It wasn't until 4 months later that I touched it again.

What changed things was this about Twitter by Robert Scoble. Basically, the trick to Twitter is in who you are following, not so much in who is following you (not many will at first). Once you're following good people, you're learning new things and contributing to conversations. If you're interesting enough, people will follow you back (and you'll feel good about that...).

So what does Twitter have to do with the Enterprise?

In actuality, the connections made here are even less likely to be meaningful than with either Facebook or LinkedIn. However, it's more likely that someone that uses the service will actually be producing some level of content and because this content is 140 characters or less, it's likely to be less "controlled" than a typical blog posting.

So as an enterprise, I may not interested in the identity connections, but I do want to see what people are saying.

I use a service called

Every once in a while I come across a gem like:

Sun Identity Manager does not scale...i've come to the conclusion. I wonder if Oracle Identity Manager does...maybe CA? 02:46 PM April 25, 2008 from web

Do you think I followed up with this happy Sun integrator?

Absolutely!

But I just as often follow up on messages that are less specific to my particular responsibilities. After all, the idea here is not to simply spam your commercial messages -- it's to be a participant in a NEW network of people.

Other Networks and Conclusions

There are many, many other networks. I've joined many of them to get a better idea of what's good and bad about them. Some, like

But generally speaking, if I'm looking at identifying the people closest to me in my enterprise setting, the real world is not likely to be reflected in my online social networks. Some networks get closer than others. With some networks, this doesn't even seem to be the purpose.

There are people for whom this is an exception. Certainly online networks are likely to be more accurate for younger people than older people. They are also likely to be more accurate for people in external facing roles (e.g. standards, marketing, sales), but these people also tend to have larger external networks, so differentiating between strong relationships and casual relationships may be even more difficult due to the lack of strong, up-to-date context.

Certainly here at Oracle and particularly in Identity Management we're paying a lot of attention to what people are doing and the enterprise potential that can be delivered to our customers from existing services, as well as the general models and opportunities that they represent.

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This is Clayton Donley's official blog. Views expressed are not necessarily those of Oracle.

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